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Thursday, December 30, 2010

End of the Camden Library...just shut down the city

The City of Camden, NJ has had a public library system for 105 years. Pink slips were given out to all library staff today, effective Feb. 11, 2011. Three branches of the library will close. One will reopen in mid-February as a branch of the county system. The main branch downtown will not reopen. Instead the building built by the county fairly recently will be the only open library. Unfortunately it is not easily accessible by public transit. Apparently, talks are underway to put a county branch inside the Rutgers-Camden library. Why that would be better than keeping the downtown branch (6 blocks away) open, I don't know. County staff would run the RU branch and the county would have to pay for the space. How is this better? It's not.

The library is used by job seekers, kids, and homeless people as well as library patrons. Urban libraries are multi-purpose facilities and important havens in the chaotic urban world. Does the county library system expect to fulfill that need? Will the one remaining branch be able to hold all the users? Will the normal load of users be able to get to the remaining branch? The downtown library is within walking distance of the city's main transportation center. The remaining branch is not. There isn't much of a rationale here for the actions taken, except that the city has a $29million budget shortfall. But that said, why close the convenient downtown branch and leave open the less accessible one? Why would the county want to open a branch at RU? RU already allows anyone to use the library and has a section of computers dedicated to the public.

The kids of Camden are the most vulnerable consumer in this debacle. They play chess, do homework, use computers, and just hang out in a safe place when they are at the downtown library (and probably at the other 2 branches as well). The city and county have given zero indication on how the library patrons will be commensurately served under the county plan. The public deserves to know.

Finally, the library is an important economic development resource. Instead of shrinking it, the city should be partnering with every eco-devo outfit in the tri-county area to expand the library as a part of the economic pipeline. Instead, one of the poorest cities in the country shrinks its library at a time of profound economic vulnerability. Does this make sense?

If this decision calculus is evidence of the acumen for regenerating this city, we might just as well shut it down now and save the pain.

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